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Monday, June 2, 2014

Pricing Digital Creative Services

Joseph Alois Schumpeter was an economist who studied in Vienna and London. I would put him in the top five of all economists in history along with Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. He popularized the term “creative destruction” in economic and political circles. After a failed early marriage and living beyond his means in London, a friend wangled a job for him managing the estate of an Egyptian princess living in Cairo. He jumped at the lucrative position and was quite successful. It turns out that the prior trustees had been stealing the princess blind. By simply taking his precise contractual fee, Schumpeter was able to lower rents for the tenants of the princess to their great delight yet still managed to double her annual income. Once things were set up his time was largely his own and he drafted his first book, THE THEORY OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT. His reputation spread and soon he was called back to Vienna as a professor.

Why tell this story? Well, it reminds me a bit of what has been happening over the last 15 years in the digital advertising arena. Some years back, when the internet was just getting rolling as an advertising medium, a new player showed up at a large client that I handled. He was not too smooth and people said that he was not the sharpest tool in the shed regarding marketing or media. I tried to be a bit kinder than that as he seemed to simply use different terms for certain items than we did and when any one used a standard term he would often blurt out “what’s that” which had some people stifling laughs. After a while I noticed how he seemed to have an inordinate interest on the cost of all creative jobs, copying and anything that could be remotely defined as “digital.” When he asked what a job cost he would write it down and sometimes smile and other times frown but he would not comment.

I bumped in to him once by accident at a social gathering two weeks before we were to begin negotiations for a multi-year contract renewal. He told me that we had better lower fees for certain jobs or we would be on very thin ice. I got him a drink and he opened up to me. He essentially said, “You have always treated me with respect but your associates do not. Yes, I have had five jobs in the last eight years. In that time, I have dealt with seven agencies and I monitor fees closely. You guys charge way too much on certain items. I am not the marketing director but you are not going to rip us off any longer.”

The next day I reported back to the CEO and we did some digging. Yes, we were overcharging for some items but, after checking with other shops around the country, we were virtually giving other tasks away. We slashed prices on the sensitive items and obtained the contract renewal. The client moved on a year or so later and I doubt his boss had a clue about how much his lieutenant had saved the company.

Were we really price gouging? I talked to some people recently and a common thread ran through their comments. One CEO who retired in the last few years weighed in as follows: “Don, when digital began we were clueless. We did not know what to charge. So, we took some guesses and found we were high in some places and low in others. When new young designers came on board, we got a handle on what others were charging. Still, we got stung by boutiques who could do a job overnight for a third of what we charged. As young talent moved client side, we had to adjust quickly as they had contacts all over. My successor is a great guy and ethical. He asked me how to bill attempts at viral videos.  Charging by the number of hours would not work so he puts two young creatives on the job who work nights and weekends as they love the assignment. Their batting average stinks. They are way below the Mendoza line (this is a baseball term attributed to George Brett describing a hitter in a slump with a batting average below .200 which was the normal average of infielder Mario Mendoza). Now, there appears to be some niche shops who know how to make them work with some consistency. How do we price something we know will likely not work?”

Another mid-sized CEO takes a different approach. “While no two compensation agreements are alike, we try to do a flat fee for all agency services allowing us to make what we think is a fair profit. We may lose our shirt on some tasks but, overall, the clients know we are playing things straight with them. By doing this, we are learning a lot about new platforms. If we charged a la carte, I am sure that we would be bushwhacked by some boutiques. We are not that big, but we cannot respond as a three person shop can that is truly cutting edge”.

So, the young lions at the boutiques who work quickly and know shortcuts and tricks are beating the small and medium sized shops badly and charging way less. They are the Schumpeters of our new century in terms of providing better service for less money. With scores more changes coming on board on scads of new platforms, traditional agencies who claim to be digitally savvy are in a tight spot.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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